Friday, January 31, 2020

Sure, but that's seven billion over twenty years

I knew that CollegeHumor was a powerhouse, but I never realized what kind of numbers until I looked this up.
As of November 2019, The CollegeHumor YouTube channel has reached over 7.1 billion views, and over 13.5 million subscribers.

As many have noted, the economics of video are insane. Between dealing with monopolies like Facebook and Youtube and competing against VC funded unicorns, even an extraordinarily successful and apparently well managed company can find itself doomed.

I was going to segue into into mockery of Quibi, but I'm just too depressed.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The way you define your metrics determines what you measure -- Netflix edition

From Marketplace.
“The Witcher” starts with Henry Cavill and his chiseled jaw battling a gurgling swamp monster. According to Netflix, 76 million member households watched at least this far.

Netflix counts people who watch the first two minutes of the show as viewers. So if you moved onto something else, you still boosted Netflix’s ratings.

“That two-minute period is enough of an indicator for them to [have a] very clear indication of people completing it,” said Courtney Williams, head of partnerships at Parrot Analytics. “So they don’t have to go all the way through.”

Here's the thing. You don't really need an indicator of how many people completed a show (even a very, very clear one), if you already know the actual number who did., No company has fetishized the collection of viewer data more than Netflix. They track how long you watched, when you paused, where you rewinded.

Though it's not the best measure of how many people have watched a show,  the 2-minute warning does give us an excellent read on interest/curiosity level, how well your marketing and PR worked, how appealing your stars are, how much people listen to your recommendation engine.

And it produces really impressive numbers like 76 million. 

In an industry where billions are spent every year on promoting content, there is a legitimate business need for these metrics, but they leave some people wanting more.

But Netflix still has investors who want to know who kept watching.

“It is proverbially grading one’s own homework, and there has to be a bit more transparency,” said Tim Hanlon, CEO of media advisory investment group Vertere.

Netflix probably knows how many people finished “The Witcher.” But unless investors press for more details, we never will.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

I shouldn’t have to say this, but earth is nicer than Mars

Furthermore, even allowing for the worst possible case scenarios with environmental disasters and the best for terraforming technologies, earth will always be nicer than Mars.

Caleb A. Scharf writing for Scientific American:

One of those hurdles is radiation. For reasons unclear to me, this tends to get pushed aside compared to other questions to do with Mars's atmosphere (akin to sitting 30km above Earth with no oxygen), temperatures, natural resources (water), nasty surface chemistry (perchlorates), and lower surface gravitational acceleration (1/3rd that on Earth).

The bottom line is that the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars, and the absence of a strong global magnetic field, result in a complex and potent particle radiation environment. There are lower energy solar wind particles (like protons and helium nuclei) and much higher energy cosmic ray particles crashing into Mars all the time. The cosmic rays, for example, also generate substantial secondary radiation - crunching into martian regolith to a depth of several meters before hitting an atomic nucleus in the soil and producing gamma-rays and neutron radation.

However, if we consider just the dose on Mars, the rate of exposure averaged over one Earth year is just over 20 times that of the maximum allowed for a Department of Energy radiation worker in the US (based off of annual exposure).
And that's for a one-off trip. Now imagine you're a settler, perhaps in your 20s and you're planning on living on Mars for at least (you'd hope) another 50 Earth years. Total lifetime exposure on Mars? Could be pushing 18 sieverts.

Now that's kind of into uncharted territory. If you got 8 sieverts all at once, for example, you will die. But getting those 8 sieverts spread out over a couple of decades could be perfectly survivable, or not. The RAD measurements on Mars also coincided with a low level of solar particle activity, and vary quite a bit as the atmospheric pressure varies (which it does on an annual basis on Mars). 
Of course you need not spend all your time above surface on Mars. But you'd need to put a few meters of regolith above you, or live in some deep caves and lava tubes to dodge the worst of the radiation. And then there are risks not to do with cancer that we're only just beginning to learn about. Specifically, there is evidence that neurological function is particularly sensitive to radiation exposure, and there is the question of our essential microbiome and how it copes with long-term, persistent radiation damage. Finally, as Hassler et al. discuss, the "flavor" (for want of a better word) of the radiation environment on Mars is simply unlike that on Earth, not just measured by extremes but by its make up, comprising different components than on Earth's surface.

To put all of this another way: in the worst case scenario (which may or may not be a realistic extrapolation) there's a chance you'd end up dead or stupid on Mars. Or both.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Tuesday Tweets -- quantity has a quality all its own

Lots of tweets this time







Monday, January 27, 2020

The situation has evolved in the past three years, but...

I think that the underlying dynamics have, if anything gotten stronger since 2017. Trump's solid base of support is now, by any reasonable definition, a cult of personality. Republicans' ability to distance themselves the administration has diminished as Trump has grown less tolerant of dissent.

All of this raises interesting points about the next few days.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GOP Game Theory -- things are still different

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

    LBJ on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,

[UPDATE: The conversation continues with The nuclear moose option and The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat.]

Let's start with a prediction:
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday that Republicans will split with President Trump within months unless the administration changes course.0
"My prediction is he keeps up on this path...within three, four months you're going to see a whole lot of Republicans breaking with him," Schumer said during an interview with ABC's "The View."
Schumer argued while most GOP lawmakers aren't yet willing to break publicly from the White House, they are privately having "real problems" with Trump's policies in his first month.

"A lot of the Republicans, they're mainstream people. ... They will feel they have no choice but to break with him," he said.
GOP leadership are largely dismissing any early signs of discord between Congress and the White House as they slowly try to make progress on an ambitious agenda.

Ed Kilgore, however, points out that Trump may not be as toxic as many people think:

So while it is hard to deny that Trump is amazingly unpopular for a new president, unless his approval ratings trend farther down the way even those of popular presidents typically do, his party may not suffer the kind of humiliation Democrats experienced in 2010. For all the shock Trump has consistently inspired with his behavior as president, there’s not much objective reason for Republican politicians to panic and begin abandoning him based on his current public standing. But in this as in so many other respects, we are talking about an unprecedented chief executive, so the collapse some in the media and the Democratic Party perceive as already underway could yet arrive.

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

The closest analogy that comes to mind is the Democrats and Vietnam, but that was a rift in a big-tent loosely organized party. The 21st Century GOP is a small tent party that depends on discipline and entrenchment strategies. It's not clear that it would survive a civil war.

Given that, I suspect the next year or two will prove Schumer wrong. There is some evidence that the president's polling has stabilized, perhaps even rebounded a bit, but even if the numbers go back into free fall, Republicans in the House and the Senate will be extremely reluctant to break from Trump with anything more than isolated or cosmetic challenges.

This isn't just a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent pissing in; this is a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent tossing grenades. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Remembering the remarkable Mr. Jones

Ripping Yarns was a fun little show from Jones and Palin. Definitely a must for fans.

Jones was a historian and (not surprisingly) a talented popularizer.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Rhetorical Orthogonality

I'm about to do one of those things that annoys the hell out of me when other people do it, namely taking a well-defined technical concept and trying to generalize it in order to make some big sweeping statements. So I start with apologies, but I think this goes to the heart of many of the problems we've been seeing with journalism and the public discourse (and also explains much of the difficulty that a lot of us run into when we tried to address those problems).

If we think of orthogonal data in the broad sense as something that brings in new information, it gives us a useful way of thinking about the discussion process. I'm thinking in a practical, not a theoretical sense here. Obviously a mathematical theorem does not technically bring any new information into a system, but in practical terms, it can certainly increase our knowledge. By the same token, a new argument may simply present generally known facts in a new light, but it can still increase our understanding. (You might argue at this point that I'm conflating knowledge and understanding. You'd probably be right, but, in this context, I think it's a distinction without a difference.)

My hypothesis here is that (putting aside literary considerations for the moment), good journalism should be judged mainly on the criteria of accuracy and orthogonality, with the second being, if anything, more important than the first. Instead, we often see indifference to accuracy and barely concealed hostility toward orthogonality. We do see a great deal of lip service toward diversity of opinion, but the majority of that "diversity" is distinctly non-orthogonal, falling on the same axes of the previous arguments, just going the opposite direction.

For example, imagine a disgruntled employee locked in an office with a gun. "He's willing to shoot."/"He's not willing to shoot" are nonorthogonal statements even though they contradict each other. By comparison, "he doesn't have any bullets" would be orthogonal. I'd put most of the discussion about liberal bias in the mainstream media squarely in the nonorthogonal category, along with every single column written by Bret Stephens for the New York Times.

Nonorthogonal debate has become the default mode for most journalists. What's more, they actually feel good about themselves for doing it. Whenever you have an expert say "is," you are absolutely required to find another who will say "is not." This practice has deservedly been mocked in cases where one of the arguments is far more convincing than the other (as with global warming), but even when there's some kind of rough symmetry between the positions, it is still a dangerously constrained and unproductive way of discussing a question.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Return of the Space Libertarians -- Quest for the Philosopher's Stone

Wow. We've been at this for a long time.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Libertarians in Space

Herman Cain gave a speech to a group of Young Republicans and the subject of the space shuttle came up:
In his speech, Cain praised President John F. Kennedy as a "great leader" for inspiring a national effort to put a man on the moon, a goal achieved when astronaut Neil Armstong stepped onto the moon's surface in 1969.

"He didn't say, 'We might.' He didn't say, 'Let's take a poll,'" Cain said. "He said, 'We will.' And we did. Only for this president to move us back by canceling a major part of our space program."

Cain also criticized Obama for using Russian technology to ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

"I can tell you that as president of the United States, we are not going to bum a ride to outer space with Russia," Cain said to loud applause. "We're going to regain our rightful place in terms of technology, space technology."
I don't know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn't that detailed) but I'd imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you'd probably come up with something like the manned space program. A massive government initiative, tremendously expensive, with no real role for individual initiative. Compared to infrastructure projects the benefits to business are limited. You could even argue that the government's presence in the field crowds out private development.

(Much has been made of the rise of private space firms, but barring a really big and unexpected technological advance, their role is going to be limited to either unmanned missions or human flights in low earth orbit for the foreseeable future.)

There have been efforts in libertarian-leaning organs (The Wall Street Journal, Reason, John Tierney's NYT columns) trying to argue that interplanetary exploration can be done on the cheap. These usually rely heavily on the blatant low-balling of Robert Zubrin* (Tierney, a science writer who has no grasp of science, made a particularly ripe mark), but even if we were to accept these numbers, it's still difficult to reconcile this kind of government program with libertarian values.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

I know you're all tired of hearing this, but there's something strange about equating electability with white and male in 2020.

Glad it's not just me.

Remember when we would have assumed this was a joke?

I have a feeling that this is one of those issues we should be talking more about.

This one goes in the Wages of Strauss file.
 We have to check in with the unicorns.

You just knew there was a McKinsey connection.


Monday, January 20, 2020

Back to the 80K question – part 1: why it matters

A while back, we had a discussion on the closeness of the 2016 electoral college vote and how best to quantify it. I argued that the best approach was to look at the minimum number of votes that would have to change in order to get a different outcome. For the last election, that was around 80,000 votes which, I argued, constituted a close race. I got some pushback so I thought I’d fill oout some of the details, starting with why we should bother with the question at all.

Different kinds of wins have different implications, both strategic and psychological. If there’s a disconnect between the way people are reacting and the actual events, that is in and of itself a phenomena worth noting and studying, but if they are making decisions based on those misinterpretations and false narratives, the problem becomes both important and urgent.

The disconnect around the closeness of Donald Trump‘s victory has manifested itself in at least a couple of ways. First is the theory that Hillary Clinton didn’t just lose, but that it wasn’t’ even close. The argument goes on to say that, in order to win, the Democrats would need to add millions to their popular vote advantage to overcome the biases of the electoral college.

Second is the belief that the margin of defeat was so massive that the Democrats need to do everything differently this time. This has particularly centered on going back to what is traditionally considered a more electable candidate. Specifically a white male from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Since every woman who has been successful enough to compete at that level will have to deal with charges of unlikeability, this is basically saying the Democrats need to nominate a man, 

Obviously, any conversations about the closeness of an electoral college win are going to be problematic. Every statement will rest on an edifice of challengeable assumptions and definitions, none of which can ever rise above the standard of merely reasonable.

Nonetheless, this is an absolutely necessary conversation. It matters whether or not Hillary Clinton lost by 80,000 votes, 2 million votes, or somewhere in between, both in terms of our analyses and our decisions.

Friday, January 17, 2020

"Now, if we wanted to take the children to see a Komodo Dragon..."

The moderators of this week's Democratic debate have taken some well deserved heat for asking Sanders to respond to alleged comments about the electability of women, then asking Warren a question with a premise that contradicted the first answer.

Putting aside for the moment questions of bias against Sanders, this reminded me of the platonic ideal of inattentive interviewing.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Two reposts

One on the electability of women, the other on the lack of electability of a demographic that includes Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg... (apply all appropriate caveats)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Any conversation about electability has got to start with the fact that a white male has not won the popular vote since 2004.

The electoral discussion among pundits and data journalists has been taking some especially silly turns of late and before the bullshit accumulates to the same dangerous level it did in 2016, we need to step back and address the bad definitions, absurd assumptions, and muddled thinking before it gets too deep.

We should probably start with the idea electability. While we can argue about the exact definition, it should not mean likely to be elected and it absolutely cannot mean will be elected.

Any productive definition of electability has got to be based on the notion of having reasonable prospect of winning. With this in mind, it is ridiculous to argue that Hillary Clinton was not electable. Lots of things had to break Trump's way for him to win the election and, while we can never say for certain what repeated runs of the simulation would show, there is no way to claim that we would have gotten the same outcome the vast majority of the time.

This leads us to a related dangerous and embarrassing trend, the unmooring of votes and outcomes. This is part of a larger genre of bad data journalism that tries to argue that relationships which are strongly correlated and even causal are unrelated because they are not deterministic and/or linear. In this world, profit or even potential profit is not relevant when discussing a startup's success. Diet and exercise have no effect on weight loss. With a little digging you can undoubtedly come up with numerous other examples.

The person who wins the popular vote may not win the electoral college, but unless you have a remarkably strong argument to the contrary, that is the way that smart money should bet.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fun with Political Trivia

This picks up on a recent thread (telling which one might be too much of a clue). The ones and zeros represent a trait of Democratic candidates from 1964 to 2004. Take a look and think about it for a moment. Here's a hint, the trait is something associated with each man well before he ran for president.

Johnson           1
Humphrey       0
McGovern       0      
Carter              1           
Mondale          0           
Dukakis           0           
Clinton            1                 
Gore                1                      
Kerry               0

As you might have guessed, the relationship between this trait and the popular vote didn't hold in the previous or following elections. The trait is not at all obscure. It was well known at the time and figured prominently into their political personas, This is not a trick question.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Golden Globes are a perfect example of journalism's non-news addiction

[Sorry about sending out the draft form earlier]

Just to get this out of the way, all major entertainment awards are largely worthless. Poor as measures of talent, even worse as indicators of artistic quality, but even by this debased standard, the Golden Globes stand alone in their lack of merit. It has always been and remains a joke.

Winning something like an Oscar or an Emmy probably has less to do with the work and more to do with lobbying and popularity, but it does, at least, represent the approval of the industry. A Critics Choice Award is given by people who watch and write about films for a living. Even the People’s Choice  award indicates a level of popular support. The Golden Globes is given out by a small group you've never heard of. >
The award started out as an excuse to party with movie stars but it quickly evolved into one of Hollywood’s most notorious scams. Here are a few highlights from Wikipedia:

1968–1974 NBC broadcast ban

The HFPA has had a lucrative contract with NBC for decades, which began broadcasting the award ceremony locally in Los Angeles in 1958, then nationally in 1964. However, in 1968, the Federal Communications Commission claimed the show "misled the public as to how the winners were determined" (allegations included that winners were determined by lobby; to motivate winners to show up to the awards ceremony winners were informed if they did not attend another winner would be named). The FCC admonished NBC for participating in the scandal. Subsequently, NBC refused to broadcast the ceremony from 1968 until after 1974.

Pia Zadora awarded "New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture" in 1982

In 1982, Pia Zadora won a Golden Globe in the category "New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture – Female" for her performance in Butterfly, over such competition as Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime) and Kathleen Turner (Body Heat). Accusations were made that the Foreign Press Association members had been bought off. Zadora's husband, multimillionaire Meshulam Riklis, flew voting members to his casino, the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, which gave the appearance that they voted for Zadora to repay this. Riklis also invited voting members to his house for a lavish lunch and a showing of the film. He also spent a great deal on advertising. Furthermore, Zadora had made her film debut some 17 years earlier as a child performer in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The Tourist for Best Musical/Comedy nominations in 2011

The nominations for the 2011 Golden Globes drew initial skepticism as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated The Tourist in its Best Musical/Comedy category, although it was originally advertised as a spy thriller, and also as one of the most panned films of the season with host Ricky Gervais even jokingly asking the main star of the film, Johnny Depp, if he had seen it. Rumors then surfaced that Sony, the distributor of The Tourist, had influenced Globes voters with an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas, culminating in a concert by Cher.

Keep in mind that Zadora and The Tourist only got attention because they were already punchlines before the Globes. There’s no reason to assume the opaque process was any less corrupt the rest of the time.

Everyone who follows the industry knows the Globes are of no news value to the Golden Globes, but every year we get actual news organizations with actual reputations runs something like this:

ARI SHAPIRO: Was there anything among the winners last night that really raised your eyebrows and you think might hint at the future of TV?
The Golden Globes are a perfect example of journalism's non-news addiction. Everyone knows they are absolutely meaningless, at best telling the viewers nothing more than who wrote the biggest check, but no one can seem to resist them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Tuesday Tweets


Monday, January 13, 2020

Efficient infringement -- when it's your fiduciary responsibility to steal stuff

This is a decidedly unhappy sequel to our previous stories on patent trolls, a grim little good news bad news joke. The good news is that we have found a way to prevent trolls from holding companies hostage with illegitimate claims of intellectual property; the bad news is that we did it by taking away the rights of people with legitimate claims.

From Joe Nocera:
If you’re not a patent aficionado, you have probably never heard the phrase “efficient infringement.” Not to blow the punch line, but it’s yet another example of how big tech companies use dubious means to squeeze their smaller rivals. When critics complain that Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are squashing innovation, this is the sort of tactic they’re talking about.

I first heard the phrase some years ago when I looked into a patent dispute between Apple Inc. and the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which owns the university’s patents, had sued Apple over its use of an innovation that university scientists had dreamed up and patented in the mid-2000s. Apple had installed it in iPhones and iPads without bothering to negotiate a license and had been using it with impunity for years before the case finally went to trial. A jury found for the foundation in 2015 and ordered Apple to pay $234 million.

That was actually a victory for Apple. Consider: Apple got free use of valuable technology that it took from a smaller, less powerful entity. Losing at trial was unfortunate, perhaps, but the $234 million was just another business expense. Pocket change, really, considering Apple’s size.

How common is this kind of move? Boris Teksler, Apple’s former patent chief, told the Economist recently that “efficient infringement, where the benefits outweigh the legal costs of defending against a suit, could almost be viewed as a ‘fiduciary responsibility,’ at least for cash-rich firms that can afford to litigate without end.” In other words, stealing patented technology is practically required if you’re focused on shareholder value. And who isn’t these days?


“What is the definition of a patent?” asked Brian Pomper, the executive director of the Innovation Alliance, which represents small and medium-size patent holders. “It means you have the right to exclude others from your invention.” He added, “How can a patent be meaningful if you don’t have the right to exclude others?” But that’s where we are. Companies like Sonos have virtually no leverage to stop bigger companies with deep pockets from infringing their patents.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A media post on Star Wars

This is Joseph.

So a few thoughts on the newest Star Wars movie.

Needless to say: SPOILERS ahoy!

One, the movie was beautiful. The special effects were stunning and the visuals were memorable.

Two, are there no proof-readers in Hollywood? Can we not decide what the antagonist's plan is?

But the part that was the most challenging to me as a viewer was that there was simply no continuity with previous plot points in the other movies. Some of this is forgivable, when you decide on an awesome twist it can be okay to have to patch over a rough spot. Think of Obi-Wan's retroactive deception about Darth Vader, once the writer puzzled out the family tree (or the even more awkward Leia is your sister moment).

But Kylo Ren is just confusing. The second movie seems to give him every chance to decide on his allegiance, even insofar as there was much doubt after the first movie. His history of misdeeds is . . . extreme. He was involved in a mass murder terror attack (Starkiller base). He murdered his fellow students at a school because he disliked the teacher (and focused so much on the other children that the teacher survived). He massacred a village in a terror attack. He murdered a family member as a part of a gang initiation. So his final arc is redemption?

It isn't that it couldn't have been plotted well.  It is just that writers seemed to keep changing their minds, and that is only worth it if the overall outcome is exceptional. The movie was fine, but the plot had a lot of obvious holes (why where the ships buried and were the crews on them when they were)?

Finally, it detracts from the previous movies. What is the point of the middle part of the trilogy now? The heroes fail at pretty much everything and not in a way that teaches lessons or because of a character flaw. No, they fail because the Emperor can survive being blown up and the protagonist doesn't sense the deception.

So it was nice to watch and I am glad I saw it. But it will generate a month of people wondering exactly what happened.

Two more tech spots from CollegeHumor

This one remains sharp and on-target.

This parody of start-ups, on the other hand, can't hope to compete with the real thing in the age of unicorns.

College Humor -- "If Internet Ads Were Salesmen " -- repost

I keep meaning to do a post about the terrible state of targeted marketing. When I get around to it, remind me to embed this. At least half of the points I want to hit are illustrated here.


After I scheduled this in the form above, Josh Marshall posted a piece on internet advertising and the death of Gawker. It contains an informative primer on how this stuff works.

Many people think that the more popular a publication gets the more ads it will sell. The bigger the audience, the more eyeballs, the more ads wanting contact with those eyeballs. That's not how it works.

There are a million dimensions to the advertising economy, just as many ways of describing it. But you can understand a whole lot about how the whole thing works by thinking in terms of three factors: 1) endemic sales proposition, 2) controversy and 3) influence.

Let's talk first about endemic sales proposition. Because I think it may have played some role in Gawker's demise (on-going legal liability may have played more of a factor or have been the entirety of the issue). A site about clothes has an endemic sales proposition: selling clothes. A site about books: books. You may say well, I only read sites about news and sports but I still buy a lot of clothes so ... Not how it works.

For a variety of reasons, some good and evidence based, others silly, advertisers want to sell you their product when you are thinking about it and in the mindset to buy. This doesn't just mean impulse purchases, but buying in general. In many cases that makes a lot of sense.

For instance, aside from people being really into tech, why do you think there are so many tech sites? Right, because there's a ton of money in video games, devices, computers, everything under the sun. People also tend to buy those things online. Again, we're not just talking about impulse buying. It can be more nuanced and less direct. But if you stand up a site about tech, gaming, computers, etc. and it does well, you have a ready made channel for ad sales. And in the case of tech an extremely lucrative one.

Sometimes it's a little more amorphous but no less ad driven. Why so many 'lifestyle' publications? Well, we all need a lifestyle, of course. And general interest magazines cover many interesting topics. But by and large that's because you're aiming for an audience of people who are affluent and want to read about cool things affluent people do: travel, toys, aspirational personal development. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld. But that's what it's about.

Next, controversy. This largely speaks for itself. Advertisers don't want to be around things that upset people or divide people. They want to be everyone's friend. They don't want negative ideas or stories to rub off on them. This isn't an absolute of course. Plenty of sites which court controversy sell tons of ads. Gawker's a prime example. But controversy is always a constraint on ad sales. You just may have other factors that overcome it.

Next, influence. This is an inherently small and nebulous part of the equation. But it's key for many publications. Many ads aren't trying to sell you anything directly. They're trying to tell you stories, shape your thinking, advocate positions. Political ads are like this. But they're mass market since obviously everyone can vote - at least in states without Republican governors and Secretaries of State. But where the money is is with people who are considered influential in various communities, so-called "opinion-leaders".

Here's an example. Go to the subways in New York you'll see ads for storage rentals, lawyers, grocery deliveries, breast augmentations, ESL courses. Go to Washington DC and you'll see ads for ... Kazakhstan or Northrup Grumman or PhRMA or well ... you get the idea. There are lots of people who care a lot about what people in the nation's capital think. And yes, TPM very much plays in that ad space. TPM and similar sites lose big on #1 and #2. But #3 is where there's a business that can drive ad sales.
As a marketing statistician, I'd like to emphasize the point about "reasons, some good and evidence based, others silly." Most of the people buying these ads, including high-level executives at Fortune 500 companies, have a very weak grasp of how targeted advertising works.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The people who brought us the greatest TED Talk ever

We'll have more on this later.
As of today, the venerable comedy concern CollegeHumor Media is mostly dead. In the words of Sam Reich, its chief commercial officer, IAC “has made the difficult decision to no longer finance us,” he wrote in a Twitter thread this afternoon. “Today, 100+ brilliant people lost their jobs, some of whom are my dear, dear friends.” That means the cuts hit every vertical: CollegeHumor, Dorkly, Drawfee, and Dropout — only five to 10 people are left, according to Bloomberg.

The news, however, wasn’t all bad: IAC agreed to let Reich become the humor company’s majority owner. “Of course, I can’t keep it going like you’re used to,” Reich wrote further down in the thread. “While we were on the way to becoming profitable, we were nonetheless losing money — and I myself have no money to be able to lose.”
Until then, here's CH taking on the sacred cows of technology.

And, as promised, the greatest TED Talk ever.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

"Cosmic Crisp" is a stupid for a pretty tasty apple

Just had one of these the other day. It was good (though I'll probably stick with the Envy) and the story of the science and economics behind its development is really interestion.

What a 500 million dollar apple tastes like by Keith A. Spencer

Upon first glance, the Cosmic Crisp apple doesn't appear particularly unique nor inspiring. It is larger than the average apple, certainly, but its mottled exterior could be confused for many other reddish varietals. In other words, one would not know immediately that this humble fruit is the pinnacle of industrial agriculture — encompassing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, two decades of planning, and hundreds of trees bred, tasted, and culled.

The phrase “apple farmer” inspires images of pastoral orchards, straw hats and wooden buckets full of fruit; yet modern agriculture practices fall far from that imagined tree. A Darwinian tasting process brought the Cosmic Crisp into being: in the late 1990s, Bruce Barrett, an apple researcher at Washington State University, picked the Cosmic Crisp out of 10,000 crossbreeds. The Cosmic Crisp, then known as WA 38, ticked all the boxes: its ability to survive in different Washington state climates, its taste and texture, and how long it lasted without decaying. (Supposedly the Cosmic Crisp can last around a year in cold storage.) A consulting firm tested the apple with focus groups, where one participant commented on the apple’s appearance as star-like, which led to the name. As with many modern seeds, Washington State owns the rights, and thus growers must pay royalties in exchange for growing the apple. The apple was so widely believed to be "the apple of the future" (as the New York Times put it) that 13 million trees were grown at a cost of $500 million. To extend the selling season, producers store the apple in a refrigerated, controlled atmosphere of 1% carbon dioxide and 2% oxygen after treating it with fungicides. Instagram influencers were hired to help hype its release, including a retired astronaut.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Tuesday Tweets

This is basically what I had in mind with the Magic of will/belief/doubt section of the magical heuristics thread, specifically doubt.



Monday, January 6, 2020

Part of my framework for (what we used to call) the nightly news

On the reactions of various GOP officials to and increasingly erratic Trump administration, here is a quick outline of the assumptions I’ve been using. So far they’ve done a pretty good job explaining the situation and they are reasonably consistent with the takes of people like Josh Marshall (which always makes me feel better).

Much of the GOP and most of its base must now be treated as a cult of personality.

As of 2019, GOP elected officials can be broken down almost entirely into two groups: believers and nonbelievers trying to pass themselves off as believers.

Nonbelievers make constant displays of loyalty to trump out of both personal interest and concern for a party.

Trump demands constant praise and lashes out at even mild criticism. Given his control over primary voters, he is in a position to destroy the political careers of any party member coming up for election in the next 2 to 4 years, possibly even longer.

In addition to fear of political suicide, Nonbelievers also have to contend with the two existential threats that Trump represents to the Republican party.

In the short term, Trump could have a massive public breakdown, or act out in such an extreme way that a solid majority of the country (more than 60%) insists on his removal. As previously discussed, that makes it almost impossible for a party to be nationally competitive.

The long-term threat is that the party continues to double down on policies that cost them support from every major demographic group except for rural white men born before 1960.

The first order of business for the nonbelievers is to keep Trump calm at all cost. This is why so many senators and congressmen who had seemed reasonably sane in the past now talk like characters from that Billy Mumy Twilight Zone episode.

The long-term, on the other hand, explains why those who aren’t singing praises are so reluctant to say anything at all, why the desire to spend time with one’s family has reached such unprecedented levels, and why we are starting to see surprisingly regular trial balloons about an anonymous Senate vote.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The greatest film comedy ever made just entered the public domain

And quite a bit more (1924 was a very good year)::

On January 1, 2020, works from 1924 will enter the US public domain,1 where they will be free for all to use and build upon, without permission or fee. These works include George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, silent films by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and books such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. These works were supposed to go into the public domain in 2000, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.2

Now the wait is over. How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1924 available in its digital library. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform the music. Educators and historians can share the full cultural record. Creators can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

In the world of educational technology, the future actually is what it used to be

A New Year's tweet got me poking Audrey Watters blog and finding all sorts of good things (more on that coming soon). One post I'll definitely be putting away for reference is this list quotes on the potential of educational technology.

I've been arguing for a while that the broad outlines of our concept of the future were mostly established in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries and put in its current form in the Postwar Period. Here are a few more data points for the file. 
“Books will soon be obsolete in schools” — Thomas Edison (1913)

“If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.” — Edward Thorndike (1912)

“The central and dominant aim of education by radio is to bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders … and unfolding events which through the radio may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air.” — Benjamin Darrow (1932)

“Will machines replace teachers? On the contrary, they are capital equipment to be used by teachers to save time and labor. In assigning certain mechanizable functions to machines, the teacher emerges in his proper role as an indispensable human being. He may teach more students than heretofore—this is probably inevitable if the world-wide demand for education is to be satisfied—but he will do so in fewer hours and with fewer burdensome chores. In return for his greater productivity he can ask society to improve his economic condition.” — B. F. Skinner (1958)

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. …I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.” — Thomas Edison (1922)

“At our universities we will take the people who are the faculty leaders in research or in teaching. We are not going to ask them to give the same lectures over and over each year from their curriculum cards, finding themselves confronted with another roomful of people and asking themselves, ‘What was it I said last year?’ This is a routine which deadens the faculty member. We are going to select instead the people who are authorities on various subjects — the people who are most respected within their respective departments and fields. They will give their basic lecture course just once to a group of human beings, including both the experts of their own subject and bright children and adults without special training in their field. These lectures will be recorded as Southern Illinois University did my last lecture series of fifty-two hours in October 1960. They will make moving-picture footage of the lectures as well as hi-fi tape recording. Then the professors and and their faculty associates will listen to the recordings time and again” — R. Buckminster Fuller (1962)

“The machine itself, of course, does not teach. It simply brings the student into contact with the person who composed the material it presents. It is a laborsaving device because it can bring one programmer into contact with an indefinite number of students. This may suggest mass production, but the effect upon each student is surprisingly like that of a private tutor.” — B. F. Skinner (1958)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020